I went to see La Grande Bellezza a couple of weeks ago, and meant to put up the review much sooner than this. Seeing that the film has just been chosen by Italy as the national candidate for Best Language Film at the 2014 Oscars, I figured it was still sort of timely.
After I’d seen the film, I remember leaving the cinema thinking that I liked it, even though I wasn’t entirely sure why. The film is a loud, sprawling epic about Rome, and Italy, with barely any plot; in a device that echoed Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it follows Gep, an ageing writer who no longer writes, as he wanders around his city. Usually he strolls from party to strip club perhaps to a beautiful ancient palazzo or church, and then probably another party. His wanderings feel aimless and slightly sad; the film is clearly Paolo Sorrentino’s attempt to expose the empty glitz of Rome during the Berlusconi era, just as Fellini did for the celebrity and glamour filled Rome of the late 1950s. It’s a film about images rather than stories, constructed around the tension between the old and the new; the crass and modern and the crumbling beauty of the old.
The opening scenes see a tourist collapse while attempting to take a photo of the sun setting over Rome at the Colosseum, followed by a spectacularly tasteless party, Italian disco style, for Gep’s birthday. Sorrentino’s ironic take on Rome’s inhabitants extends not just to the tourists who see Rome only as a beautiful museum and not as a living city, but also to the excesses and exploitation of twenty-first century Rome’s Dolce Vita. As Gep wanders through the cobble-stoned streets and piazzas of Rome as he wanders from party to strip club and hosts drug-fuelled parties in his apartment directly overlooking the Colosseum, it becomes clear that the entire film is built around these contrasts. It depicts a world that is both crass and beautiful, superficial and empty; with almost no space for ordinary life in between. Is it a film about Rome, or one built around images of Rome?
Almost all of the women depicted in the film are both exploited and on display; from Ramona, the stripper whom Gep develops a relationship with, to Suor Maria, an ancient, venerated nun nicknamed ‘the saint’. The scenes with Suor Maria, ‘la Santa’, are brilliantly comical. A nun famed for her missionary work and healing power, Gep is charged with interviewing the elderly nun during her visit to Rome. In one scene, she is shown seated and on display while her followers worship in silence, approaching her one by one for her healing touch. The whole occasion comes across more as an opportunity for Roman society to act out their ostentatiously hushed devotion, while elegantly dressed of course. Even Suor Maria is being put on show, fetishised for her apparently holy body and touch. The interview proves elusive as she is closely managed and rarely allowed to speak for herself. In a world like this, even the sacred is superficial.
This solemn pageantry is mirrored in the funeral scene of the son of one of Gep’s close friends. His appearance and manner are meticulously planned so that he will display just the right degree of sympathy and crucially, be seen to do it. However his cool resolve crumbles when he is actually required to do something to help, stepping in as a pall bearer when nobody else comes forward. The focus is again on exhibition, on the stylish imitation of feeling – but there is nothing behind it.
Although there is no real narrative, the film is much more tightly constructed than its loose, meandering plot would suggest; the funeral scene and the Suor Maria scenes closely mirror each other and themes and images echo each other throughout the film. It is a clever, beautiful film that playfully exposes the hypocrisy and excess of Roman high society, while poking fun at the apparently Italian search for ‘beauty’ in contemporary life that instead ends only in style and superficiality. But is this an ironic referencing of national stereotypes and ideas of Italy, or just playing into these preconceived notions of nation and national character?
Gep’s Rome seems almost like a flattened version of the contemporary city, populated only by extremes. There is either the decaying splendor of historic Rome – the ancient grandeur of the Colosseum, the hidden detail of the statues, fountains and plasterwork of the private palaces that Gep and Ramona secretly tour – or the strobe lit party scenes and strip clubs of Berlusconi-era and celebrity Rome, but neither of these are surely the real city. The idea that Gep and Rome have no future, that the beauty is only in the past, permeates the film, both reflecting and perpetuating the idea that Italy itself is only its past. The sense of stasis, stagnation, permeated the film and looking at contemporary Italy where Berlusconi has managed to cause yet another governmental crisis, this mood is pretty understandable. But is this beautiful, fatalistic message everything?